In "Triumph," Carolyn Jessop writes about growing up in a polygamist sect and her April 2003 escape from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Jessop, 42, begins her story on April 3, 2008, when the church's Texas ranch was raided by law enforcement officials and she watched hundreds of children, some her own stepchildren, involved in a case that would unfold in the spotlight of the national media.
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It was Thursday, April 3, 2008. I was home in West Jordan, Utah, folding laundry in my bedroom, when my cell phone rang.
"Carolyn, it's Kathy. Something is going on at the ranch. Law enforcement is at the gate, and the country road has been shut down."
Kathy Mankin and her husband, Randy, publish The Eldorado Success, the local newspaper in Eldorado, Texas, the town nearest to the Yearning for Zion Ranch, a $20 million compound spread across seventeen hundred acres in West Texas. The YFZ Ranch is owned and operated by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the polygamous Mormon cult in which I'd spent my entire life until fleeing in April 2003. My ex-husband, Merril Jessop, had been running the ranch since becoming one of the highest- ranking men in the FLDS in 2006.
Kathy and Randy had been covering the FLDS since 2003, when the ranch was bought under false pretenses as a corporate retreat and lodge. On March 24, 2004, with the headline "Corporate Retreat or Prophet's Refuge?" the Mankins broke the news to the residents of Eldorado—a town of roughly two thousand residents, thirteen churches, three restaurants, and an aging motel—that their new neighbors were members of an extreme polygamous sect. Kathy and I had been in touch since 2006, when she called to find out what might be going on at the ranch and to broaden her knowledge of the FLDS. This time,though, her voice sounded urgent.
"Randy asked one of the law enforcement officers where they were all coming from, and he said they were coming in from everywhere," she told me. She said it was hard to get information because law enforcement was keeping the media out of the area. She was worried about an ugly showdown if the FLDS did not cooperate.
My phone rang nonstop for the rest of the night. It soon became clear that Merril was in a major confrontation with the law. Since the national media had no idea what was going on yet, we couldn't turn on the TV for information. All I knew were the bits and pieces that my callers told me.
Of course I knew just how dangerous this situation could become. It was no secret within the FLDS that members would be proud to die for the prophet. In fact, Warren Jeffs, the now-imprisoned leader of the FLDS, once asked at the regular monthly meeting for FLDS men how many would be willing to die for him. As the rest of the community learned immediately afterward— this was the kind of news that spread like wildfire—every single one of the men stood. Then again, no one would have dared not to.
My greatest fear was that what ever was happening at the YFZ Ranch could explode into another Waco, the Texas town where seventy- six people died back in 1993, when the Branch Davidian compound, run by the self-styled prophet David Koresh, burned to the ground after being raided by federal agents. Footage of that raid circulated among the FLDS as an example of how corrupt the government had become. FLDS leaders blamed the government for killing everyone at Waco.
I had eight stepchildren on the YFZ Ranch who were younger than eighteen and several more who were adults. I had taught a few of FLDS leader Warren Jeffs's wives when I was a schoolteacher, and I was concerned that they might be on the ranch, too. Severing myself from the FLDS did not mean I stopped caring about those I'd loved when I was there. It was a constant source of guilt that I'd been unable to protect those loved ones as much as I'd managed to protect my own children. In the nearly six years since I'd fled, my life—and my children's—had steadily improved. Knowing firsthand how joyful life could be made me yearn even more that those still mired in the cult might one day cut themselves loose.
But my deepest concern was for my daughter Betty, who'd broken my heart when she returned to the FLDS in 2007 immediately after turning eighteen. For about a month we lost all contact but gradually began talking again by phone. Our last conversation, just four days earlier, had lasted forty- five minutes. She was not living on the YFZ Ranch but was cooking and cleaning for her half- brothers, who were working on construction jobs outside Texas. She never talked about why she wasn't on the ranch with her father, whom she idolized, but I suspect Merril wanted to make sure she was truly committed after living for four years "on the outside." My heart froze as I contemplated what this new crisis might mean for our still- shaky relationship. But above all I felt relief that Betty wasn't at the ranch.
It was an endless night. When the calls stopped, my mind didn't. Something huge was unfolding in Texas. What terrified me most was that Merril was in charge of the hundreds of children inside the compound. Merril saw himself as invincible and had never been reasonable or accountable to anyone. He was a bully and a coward. And that, of course, made him even more dangerous. He was careful to protect his own safety, but if he felt desperate and trapped, he was capable of doing something stupid.
After a sleepless night, I got up the next day, April 4, and began calling everyone who might know something. I learned that the ranch had been surrounded because the Child Protective Services (CPS) for Texas wanted to talk to a young girl named Sarah Barlow, who'd made a call to an abuse hotline on March 29, 2008. The girl had begged for help, claiming she was forced to marry at sixteen, became pregnant, and was repeatedly raped and beaten by her fifty-year-old husband.
Initially Merril refused to allow the CPS workers on the YFZ Ranch because, he insisted, there was no one there by the name of Sarah Barlow. But after resisting for hours, Merril apparently realized that the Texas Rangers weren't backing down. So he finally allowed them and their deputies to enter. They were followed by a team from CPS, who began searching the compound for "Sarah," the young girl who'd made the call. When they could not find her, the CPS team wanted to talk to all the teenage girls on the premises who were younger than seventeen.
Of the twenty girls CPS interviewed, five were named Sarah. One had had a baby at sixteen but she said she was not Sarah Barlow. CPS found other girls under eighteen who were pregnant. Under Texas law, it is a crime to engage in sexual contact with someone younger than seventeen who is not a legal spouse. I was told that the girls generally refused to answer questions; the few who did talk were defiant in their insistence that no age was too young to get married.
The Texas Supreme Court decision that was reached six weeks later described the reception CPS got at the ranch: "When the Department arrived at the YFZ Ranch, it was treated cordially and allowed access to children, but those children repeatedly 'pled the Fifth' in response to questions about their identity, would not identify their birth dates or parentage, refused to answer questions about who lived in their homes and lied about their names—sometimes several times. Answers from parents were similarly inconsistent: One mother first claimed that four children were hers, and then later avowed that they were not. Furthermore, the Department arrived to discover that a shredder had been used to destroy documents just before its arrival."
Law enforcement officers who accompanied CPS onto the ranch noticed pregnant young girls being herded from one house to another on the compound. A lawyer involved with the case later told me that the state always suspected that it never got all the children from the ranch because some had been whisked away.
By Saturday, April 5, CPS had taken 167 children into custody. I was on the phone when the news bulletin appeared on TV, announcing that district judge Barbara Walther had ordered the removal of young girls from the ranch. Moments later there was a shot of a bus filled with young girls leaving the compound. One of the heads I saw bobbing up and down through the bus window had bright red hair. My heart almost stopped. I was sure it was my fourteen-year-old stepdaughter; she would be terrified at being removed from the only world she had ever known.
What had begun as a simple investigation of a distress call by a young woman named Sarah had exploded into a human tragedy and a major national news story.
Once again Merril revealed his stupidity. If he'd only cooperated with authorities at the beginning and provided one of the Sarah Barlow's for questioning, the raid on the ranch could probably have been avoided. The interview would have been fruitless, and there would have been no grounds for law enforcement to search all the homes on the ranch. The officers might have wanted to do more questioning, but CPS would never have discovered as much as it did.
As for CPS, along with not being equipped to handle all the children who were removed from the ranch, it never found the Sarah Barlow who'd made the call. Suspicion was building that the call was a hoax. All the same, evidence suggested that the YFZ Ranch was a hotbed of child abuse. As this evidence was presented to Judge Walther, she ordered more and more children removed.
By Monday, April 7, Judge Walther had ordered 401 children into temporary protective custody based on a determination of significant risk of harm. In addition, 133 women had now left the compound. The men, meanwhile, were told to remain on the ranch while the investigation continued.
Kathy told me that the small community of Eldorado was spinning from the shock of seeing hundreds of children being pulled from the YFZ Ranch. The residents had had no idea there were so many children sequestered on the ranch since, as Kathy said, the women and children were never seen in town, only the men. All anyone knew was that the ranch was a closed polygamous community that kept to itself.
The raid was now the largest child custody case anyone could remember in U.S. history. Unfortunately, CPS was not remotely prepared to provide for the hundreds of children suddenly in its care. Emergency workers were being called in from other areas of Texas to help. The Eldorado community began collecting emergency relief to provide food, toys, cribs, and other items the children needed.
"They should have kicked out the men and left the children undisturbed," Kathy said angrily. "Those kids should not be traumatized like this."
She was right, but I knew there was plenty of trauma going on inside the ranch, too. One of the major reasons I fled the FLDS was because fourteen-year-old girls were routinely forced to marry and my daughter Betty was thirteen at the time. And in the months before my escape, the FLDS was becoming even more fanatical. Warren Jeffs, who'd ascended to the official leadership of the FLDS in 2002 after his father, Rulon Jeffs, died, was splitting up families and talking about sending "worthy" FLDS members to "The Center Place." At that point in time, none of us knew what he meant by "The Center Place" but I thought it sounded terrifying.
During the nearly two years, from 2005 to 2006, when Warren Jeffs was on the run (a status that eventually earned him a place on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list), my husband, Merril Jessop, became one of the most powerful leaders in the cult. If I'd stayed married to him, my eight children and I would almost surely have been forced to move to the compound in Texas, where we would have been completely cut off from the outside world. Even worse, my handicapped son, Harrison, would have been unable to get the medical care and therapy he needed to survive. Merril had ten children under the age of twelve when we got married, and he fathered twenty more over the next seventeen years. It had been nearly five years since I'd seen any of the stepchildren I'd helped raise, and I knew their world had only grown less safe. With Warren Jeffs's 2006 arrest and conviction (he's now serving two five years-to-life sentences for being an accomplice to rape), his followers became more convinced than ever that he was being persecuted like Jesus Christ, just as he'd predicted.
As I watched the crisis at the YFZ Ranch on TV, fear and hope were my dueling emotions. I was frightened about what might happen to the children and heartsick that they might have to endure yet more pain. At the same time I hoped that maybe, just maybe, the long legacy of abuse and crimes against FLDS women and children might finally be drawing to a close.
More than almost anything else, I wanted to see those children saved.
Excerpted from TRIUMPH: Life After the Cult ~ A Survivor's Lessons by Carolyn Jessop with Laura Palmer. Copyright 2010 by Broadway Books. Reprinted by Permission of Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.